U.S authorities detained the defense minister for Mexican ex-president Enrique Pena Nieto at Los Angeles airport on Thursday on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warrant, a DEA spokeswoman told Reuters.
As defense minister General Salvador Cienfuegos was a powerful figure in Mexico’s drug war in which the army battled cartels across the country. Several of Mexico’s former top-ranking ‘drug war’ officials have been implicated in narcotics.
The high-level arrest comes less than three weeks before the U.S. presidential election. President Donald Trump, seeking a second term, has made clamping down on cartel activity a major policy objective, though with little major progress since he took office in 2017.
Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter that he was informed of the detention of Cienfuegos by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
“The Consul in Los Angeles will be informing me of the charges in the next few hours. We will offer the consular assistance to which he is entitled. I will keep you posted,” said Ebrard.
A Mexican diplomatic source said members of Cienfuegos’ family, traveling with him at the time of the detention, have already been released.
The DEA spokeswoman told Reuters she did not have further details on the circumstances of the arrest, whether Cienfuegos was coming or going at the Los Angeles airport, or whether family or others were traveling with him.
The defense ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“This detention is going to have a powerful impact in Mexico,” said military affairs analyst Raul Benitez.
Cienfuegos was Pena Nieto’s defense minister until the end of the president’s term.
Pena Nieto was in office for six years through December 2018. Several members of his cabinet and party have been implicated in high-level corruption cases, sometimes involving allegations of links to organized crime.
Under Cienfuegos the army was accused of extrajudicial killings, including the 2014 Tlatlaya massacre, where 22 drug gang members were executed.
Arrest warrants were issued in Mexico last month for soldiers in connection with the kidnapping and presumed massacre of 43 students the same year in a town known for heroin trafficking.
The armed forces have taken an increasingly prominent role in fighting crime in Mexico, and generally are perceived as less prone to corruption than civilian police forces.
Elements of the Army in the northern state of Sinaloa have long been rumored to have had links to the cartel formerly headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, now in a U.S. prison.
The detention of Cienfuegos comes on the heels of the arrest of ex-President Felipe Calderon’s security minister, Genaro Garcia Luna.
Garcia Luna is on trial in New York on suspicion of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, which he was tasked with combating.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador accuses his predecessors of rampant corruption. He has leant heavily on the armed forces in his efforts to end cartel violence in the country, which saw nearly 35,000 killings last year.
This story has been updated here: Mexico’s ex-defense chief helped ship tons of cocaine and heroin, charges say
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Frank Jack Daniel, Anthony Esposito and Diego Ore in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Michael Perry